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Mar 1, 2004 9:59 pm

Boorstin ...

Daniel J. Boorstin died yesterday in Washington, DC. There are obituaries in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press. I'm not sure that graduate students in American history read Boorstin any longer, but he will surely be remembered for his prize-winning trilogy, The Americans, and for having coined the term"pseudo-event" forty years ago in his book, The Image. If anything, our"events" are even more likely to be"pseudo" today.

As I read the obituaries, I was struck by several things. Boorstin was born in Atlanta, the child of Jewish immigrant parents. His father participated in the legal defense of Leo Frank and the Boorstins left the city in an exodus of Jewish families when Leo Frank was lynched. Entering Harvard at 15, Daniel Boorstin wrote his senior thesis on Edward Gibbon's"Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" and later claimed that Gibbon was the model for his own work as a historian. Briefly, in 1938 and 1939, Boorstin was a member of a Communist Party cell at Harvard. If anything, he over-reacted against that experience and grew increasingly conservative. In 1953, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee and volunteered the names of fellow party members.

Boorstin had a distinguished teaching career, but he left teaching for government service in 1969. He was director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of History and Technology for four years and director of the Library of Congress for 12 years before retiring in 1987. In the 1960s, Boorstin became a critic of the new student left and of affirmative action. It would be too bad if his work should go unread. At his best, he aimed to write history on the grand scale that Simon Schama and Tim Burke have recently called for. We would be fortunate, indeed, if we succeeded in doing it quite as well as Boorstin did.

See also: Ed Cohn's thoughts at Gnostical Turpitude. I suppose I was correct in thinking that graduate students in history no longer read Boorstin. That is a mistake.

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Ophelia Benson - 3/2/2004

Oh, oops! I spoke carelessly - I didn't mean to say that Macdonald over-reacted, only that he was part of the anti-Stalinist left. I don't think he did over-react, and he did stay on the left, in one idiosyncratic way or another, for the rest of his life. Though by the '50s he found himself more interested in culture than politics. The selection of his letters edited by his biographer Michael Wreszin (A Moral Temper) is an excellent place to follow the windings of Macdonald's views, and a very interesting read.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/1/2004

I should have replied earlier to Grant Jones's point at the top of this thread about my use of the word "over-react." As Jones and Ophelia Benson point out, many Anglo-American intellectuals reacted to the Nazi-Soviet Pact with the same recoil of horror that Boorstin had.
In fact, the best teacher I ever had, Will Herberg, had that same reaction, having been the chief intellectual protagonist of the "Lovestonite" faction on the American left. Despite my undying admiration for Will, I have no qualms about saying that he, too, over-reacted. By the time I knew him, Will was writing for _National Review_ and his comments there about the civil rights movement, for example, are truly embarrassing for their lack of any sense of how urgent was the need for the South and the nation to rid itself of the shame of racial segregation.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/1/2004

Thanks for this, Richard. There is some interesting research to be done -- both into Boorstin's appearance before HUAC and whatever shunning of him may have occurred thereafter. Of course, it would also need to be put in the larger contexts, much of which we understand more clearly with the passage of time.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/1/2004

Navasky says Boorstin named five, but doesn't give the names. I'm trying to understand the First Amendment argument put forward by the Hollywood Ten, but I just can't get my arms around it. There are two interesting books on the subject of Hollywood and the CPUSA: Ronald and Allis Radosh's Red Star Over Hollywood, and Kenneth Lloyd Billingley's Hollywood Party. There's also Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle's Tender Comrades, a compendium of 36 blacklistees' interviews (it's out of print already, having been published only in 1999 -- Buhle being best known at HNN for the claim, criticized by others, that the most massive illegal activity of the CPUSA was supporting a nascent Israel with arms and fighters).

Coleman Wells - 3/1/2004

I agree that few graduate students or professional historians now read Boorstin. But any serious historian of 19th and 20th century US history really needs to read "The Americans: The Democratic Experience." It's a great work of scholarship, period. To take one example, Boorstin was years ahead of most historians in writing about advertising and marketing; similarly, his brief discussion of "statistical communities" that formed in the 19th century presaged a lot of writing in history of social science. There are short chapters in this book that other historians would have turned into treatises. Of course, he wrote it 30+ years ago, but as a whole it still holds up--and it's a scandal that so many historians now working in those fields are either ignorant of, or deliberately ignore, Boorstin.

I'm can't say for sure why today's professional historians ignore Boorstin, and especially this book. Maybe his conservative politics in the 50s and 60s, his more celebratory take on American history, or his turn to historical potboilers late in life? Whatever the reason, it's a shame.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/1/2004

I just Googled the issue, and found a source that says Boorstin named Granville Hicks and Richard Schlatter. Perhaps there were others, perhaps not. The source was Jon Wiener, but I'm so happy to declare my memory intact that I won't indulge in a little Quelle criticism on this one.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/1/2004

No, Ralph, it could just be my increasingly bad and unreliable memory playing tricks with me. I remember a profile I read about him about 20 years back, that described him as taking refuge in the Smithsonian (I think he had been at Chicago) as a result of him feeling shunned within academia. Perhaps just a psychobiographer who went a little too far with the evidence. If my memory is wrong on the names issue, then I owe an apology. I'll look it up and clean up my own mess, if I can and if necessary.

BTW, the thing about the flat earth was treated at some length in one of Jeffrey Burton Russell's books.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/1/2004

Richard, Do you know any more details about his naming names -- who he named, for instance -- or about the ostracism?

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/1/2004

I think he paid a big price for naming names -- he was ostracized. His claim that the world thought the world flat before Columbus was unfounded, and strange from someone with his connection to the Smthsonian. His analysis of pseudo-events was prescient.

Ophelia Benson - 3/1/2004

Dwight Macdonald, too.

Grant W Jones - 3/1/2004

I love his _The Discoverers_ and _The Creators_ among others, such as _The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson_. Grand Scale History at its best!

Boorstin was not the only one who saw Stalinism up close who "over-reacted." There was also Jay Lovestone and Benjamin Gitlow. Indeed, the most effective anti-communists were on the left. Sidney Hook and John Dewey also come to mind.

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